This article was originally published in the June 2018 Trenton Downtowner.
Political change is becoming the norm in Trenton this year.
In addition to the election of Democratic Governor Phil Murphy, who replaced the highly unpopular Republican Chris Christie, the upcoming June 12 mayoral runoff election promises a new chapter in the capital city.
Actually the chapter started when current Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson made history by deciding not to seek re-election after a single term.
After all, incumbent Trenton mayors generally have enjoyed a long tenure of ongoing or habitual support — unless, of course, they ended up in a federal penitentiary.
Mayor Arthur Holland held the position for 26 years and died in office in 1989. Doug Palmer held the position for 20 years (1990 to 2010). Mayor Tony Mack followed in 2010 but was sent to prison in 2014.
Yet even after a series of controversies ranging from accounting irregularities, botched grant applications, poor services, raised taxes, and a problem-riddled Trenton Water Works, the amiable and “Better than Convicted Former Mayor Tony Mack” Jackson may have been given a pass by Trenton’s generally apathetic electorate.
But Jackson’s self-removal set the stage for both the May 8 primary-like election that whittled seven mayoral candidates down to just two contenders: Paul Perez and Reed Gusciora. The historical implications include the election of either the first Latino mayor, Perez, or the first openly gay mayor, Gusciora.
That it is happening in a city where Latinos, Caucasians, and openly gay politicians are a minority has a touch of history in itself — but just a touch. What is really important is that the next mayor has the ability to get the capital city to act like, well, a capital city.
So let’s get beyond the obvious and ask who are these candidates, what do they stand for, and what are their positives and negatives.
Checking into their websites provides some help — and opens up some questions.
Who are they?
Paul Perez, according to his election site, “was born and raised in Trenton. He served in the United States Army for 20 years.”
A Times of Trenton article during Perez’s 2014 bid for mayor provides some additional details (but not dates): He was the 11th of 15 children in a tight Puerto Rican family, his mother worked as a housekeeper at Mercer Hospital, he discovered an interest in politics at a young age, met his future wife in high school, and became determined to find a job, dropped out of school to take his GED, took classes at Bloomfield College, and left to join the army.
His website points out that he has two sons in the military.
Without any further specifics about dates and places, Perez’s statement paints the candidate as “experienced leader, administrator, and skilled problem-solver” with “27 years of experience in devising strategies and policies to ensure that an organization meets its goals and priorities.”
The biography continues listing various positions and duties, such as being a member of the Senior Executive Service where “he led complex administrative operations in areas including budget preparation and management, information technology services, logistics, human capital, contracts and procurement, governance and policy formation, and evaluating and building infrastructure.”
Additional research explained that the Senior Executive Service is part of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and serves as the chief human resources agency and personnel policy manager for the federal government. The connection to the army is not clear.
Perez’s website continues with “As he is a previously Board Certified Protection Professional with ASIS International, he is a firm proponent of career development.” Again, more research shows that ASIS is the American Society for Industrial Security, a private security company that offers a certificate program. It is based in Alexandria, Virginia, where Perez lived until returning to Trenton in 2012.
Perez’s website continues that the candidate “served as the Division Director of the Division of Administrative Services at the National Science Foundation, where he received the Directors Award for Collaborative Integration and the Directors Commendation for Dedicated Service — Visionary Leadership.”
Again, since more clarity would provide a more accurate picture, it is helpful to visit Perez’s LinkedIn page, where he states the division provided a variety of facilities management services.
Perez’s campaign website notes that the candidate is “currently the president of his own company, PZ Energy and Electric LLC, which has employed a number of Trenton residents” and, according to the company’s website, is “specializing in energy management products and services for major businesses and organizations across the northern corridor of the United States” and provides “integrated energy solutions that help customers strategically buy, manage and use their energy.”
The website moves onto his interaction to city projects and notes he and his wife, Janet, are cofounders of Partnerships for Trenton, a nonprofit “dedicated to educating our youth, supporting our seniors and matching people to resources.” Perez is also the vice president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey; a member of the executive board for the Special Parent Advocacy Group, New Jersey; an adviser to the Trenton based Seniors Health and Wellness Task Force; and an elected officer of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Trenton Post 12165.
The website says Perez holds a B.A. from Excelsior College, an accredited distance college based in Albany, New York. His LinkedIn page notes he has certificates from the Key Executive Program at American University and the Harvard Kennedy School Senior Executive Fellows Program. (His election-related website says he graduated from the programs.)
From other sources we learn that Perez was also vice president of sales and operations at Norbeck Technologies, from January, 2015, to June, 2016. That’s a small, service disabled veteran-owned small business in Clinton, Maryland, “providing network infrastructure and information security to the government, commercial, and nonprofit sectors.” LinkedIn says he also ran his own Trenton-based company, Protective Realm, from 2013 to 2015.
Perez initially ran for mayor in 2014 and has continued campaigning since then. He has been a regular presence at public sessions and community meetings.
Reed Gusciora, we learn from his website, was “born March 27, 1960,” and “is a Democrat who has served in the New Jersey General Assembly since 1996, representing the 15th Legislative District, which includes portions of Mercer and Hunterdon Counties, including the Capital City of Trenton.”
Another source was consulted to find out that he was born in Passaic.
The election-related site continues that his “father, Walter, worked at the Department of Health in Trenton, and the city was an integral part of Reed’s childhood. As a teen attending Jamesburg Public Schools, he regularly worked with his family’s company, Aardvark Pest Control, conducting clean ups on East State Street, and spent time visiting Trenton’s famous restaurants with his father.”
Additional biographical information, such as the recent profile in Out in New Jersey, do not mention the early Trenton connections.
As his website notes, “Gusciora received a B.A. from the Catholic University of America in politics and international relations, and was awarded a J.D. in 1988 from the Seton Hall University School of Law. Formerly, Gusciora worked as a congressional aide.” Another source indicates that the congressman was Oklahoma Democrat Michael Lynn Synar.
The election website says that Gusciora was campaign manager to Mercer County Freeholder and later Princeton mayor Barbara Boggs Sigmund and an attorney at Stark and Stark. His LinkedIn page lists him as the owner of Law Office of W. Reed Gusciora. The “W” stands for Walter.
His campaign-related website adds, “Currently, he works as a municipal prosecutor in Princeton, Lawrenceville, and Hopewell boroughs, and as a professor at the College of New Jersey. Reed moved to Trenton from Princeton in 2011 because he believed in the city’s potential, drawing on his childhood experiences.”
A Times of Trenton article in 2011, however, says he was one of the three lawmakers “thrown into unfamiliar political territory when the state adopted a new legislative district map “ and had “just closed on his Princeton home on three weeks ago, (and) has put it back on the market and today signed a lease for an apartment in Trenton.” In 2013 he purchased a home on Renfew Avenue.
As the election website notes, “Gusciora has been Deputy Majority Leader since 2008, and was the Assembly’s Assistant Minority Leader from 1998-2001. Gusciora has served as the chair of the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development, Assembly Environment and Solid Waste, and Assembly Regulatory Oversight, Federal Relations, and Reform committees. He also sits on the Governor’s Advisory Council, and is a board member of the Mercer ARC, where he advocates for the rights of the developmentally disabled.”
Saying that Gusciora has been “a strong voice advocating for the development and revitalization of Trenton for more than two decades,” the website claims “he led the effort to prevent construction of the Martin Luther King Elementary School on top of a hazardous waste dumping site. His efforts were instrumental in securing funding to rebuild the dilapidated Trenton Central High School from the Christie Administration, and he organized the opposition against Christie’s recent effort to redevelop State Office Buildings in Downtown Trenton. Gusciora has also consistently promoted economic development by encouraging the growth of new industries, such as electronic waste recycling and recreational marijuana, and encouraging new business and real estate development in the city.”
While information regarding the elementary school claim was elusive, the other claims were bolstered by a number of newspaper articles showing Gusciora’s involvement with the high school, including one where Governor Christie told him, “We’re getting you a new high school.” The governor had also called Gusciora “numbnuts” over a disagreement on same sex marriage.
Other articles clearly support the claims regarding Gusciora’s active and public opposition to the downtown Trenton state office buildings (including participating in a lawsuit against the state) and recent legislation involving the creation of small distilleries in New Jersey. He also introduced legislation to help provide state loans to artists living in cities and an arrangement to help the sale of historic urban taverns and restaurants by providing a liquor license.
Gusciora entered the campaign when Mayor Jackson announced he would not seek re-election. If elected he would have to resign as a New Jersey Assemblyman, opening up an appointed seat.
What’s their stand?
Perez’s website notes: “Our goal is that the City of Trenton improve the efficiency and effectiveness of public safety services to promote the overall well-being of our city, through competent management, an integrated police department with a specific and improved public safety plan, and by creating partnerships with the community to combat crime and improve the lives of those that live, work, and play in the city.”
His plan includes improving professionalism within the police department; fostering improvements in departmental organization and structure; and increasing links with community agencies and community residents.
Gusciora’s website notes: “Restoring public trust in our police force is critical to the safety of Trenton’s citizens. My administration will develop practices to integrate officers into the communities they serve, so that citizens and the city can cooperate to improve public safety.” The site then outlines the following approach: increase accountability and oversight, dedicate additional resources to fighting crime, and develop and implement community policing practices.
Perez says he hopes to promote “learning and civic involvement among all residents” and has the goal that all residents “know how to learn more, have the skills to find and keep a job, and are informed, actively engaged in our democratic institutions.”
On his website Perez evokes the spirit of 20th century American education philosopher Mortimer Adler and lists several objectives: promote enrollment in high quality pre-k education, develop an informed school board, launch a community education advisory board to develop learning strategies, expand schools as neighborhood learning centers of learning, increase out-of-school youth programs, partner with area agencies and nonprofits to increase employment and life skills training, re-invigorate vocational education programs, institute a moratorium on new charter schools until the state reviews its selection and approval process, and engage local higher education institutions “in advancing the learning of our residents and rolling up their collective sleeves to help Trenton address the challenges it faces.”
Gusciora says the schools in New Jersey’s densest urban centers need active attention to improve academic achievement and points to a known situation: “Over 75 percent of Trenton third graders are below state proficiency standards. Education necessitates immediate and constant action. We cannot allow our city schools to fall further behind. We need to make a change.”
He then lists three areas: Full-day programs “for students aged five to eight will give children the foundation and opportunity to excel in their academic pursuits, reinvigorate public schools and limit charter expansion, and expand vocational education options in Trenton.”
Perez’s approach calls for “Improving the Conditions for Owning, Investing, and Living in Trenton” and has as a goal to leverage the city’s “natural and financial assets … to promote the economic well-being of our city through competent management of our municipal government”
To meet that end he created a list of administrative actions that could be grouped (but wasn’t on the website) as follows:
Internal: Review current city agreements ranging from leases to grant agreements to understand obligations and opportunities, create an inventory and condition status of city properties, review existing ordinances to address vacant and abandoned properties, and develop a tourism plan to capitalize on Trenton’s history.
External: Partner with the community to improve neighborhood and district quality of life; improve downtown signage, sidewalks, and general appearance; address vacant storefront; work with NJ Transit to improve bus service; improve parking, and address blight.
Partnerships: Promote Trenton nationally and regionally as “an exciting, vibrant place to live, work with financial institutions to create loan packages to promote investment in Trenton for housing and small businesses, create a Small Business Office and improve coordination between the administration and Trenton Downtown Association and Greater Trenton, and recruit enterprises by reclaiming Trenton’s waterfront areas, fostering development around the Trenton’s transit areas, the supporting opportunities presented through anticipated legalization and control of cannabis-related products.
Gusciora says the Trenton residents have already investigated time and resources in planning for several project, including the Capital Park, Trenton250, the current Creek2Canal Creative District, and that he intends to use these “vital tools” to guide economic development efforts and “press for the recognition that our plans must guide all of the players active in our city. That includes private developers as well as county and state. He also says the city’s parking authority, downtown association, and water works will “be expected to develop strategic plans that align with and reinforce our city plans.”
Gusciora also called the downtown hotel and the former Mercer Medical Center “potential economic engines for our city.”
Other plans include diversifying the city economy by maintaining and expanding existing businesses, creating a business environment to attract and nurture small companies, and attracting mid-sized and large firms.
Other steps to improve quality of life and city responsiveness include: The establishment of a phone system to allow for reporting of complaints, a dedicated vocational school for Trenton, increased options at Mercer County Community College to help students and residents train necessary for line city jobs; and making sure inspectors, meter attendants, public works employees do their jobs “raising revenues, cleaning our streets, and filling in our potholes.”
Trenton Water Works
While Perez’s website does not mention the Trenton Water Works, Gusciora dedicates a section to it, calling it a “top priority” in need of total financial and administrative review. He also says he does not intend to sell or privatize it, as the Palmer Administration had proposed in 2013.
Declaring he does not intend to sell or privatize it (as former Mayor Palmer had proposed), Gusciora says he plans to address the problems that have become state headlines by establishing of a caucus of mayors of the surrounding municipalities that use the service and to promote dialogue and collaboration, addressing current and future staffing needs (including developing an education-training program), addressing regulation compliance, and exploring methods of using the resource for economic value (such as employing solar panels to cover the reservoir).
An internet search showed Perez addressing the Trenton Water Works in a January press event where he criticized the Jackson administration for putting the people of Trenton at risk.
While Perez’s website also doesn’t seem to address marijuana, Gusciora’s does and says he would ensure that Trenton would take advantage of opportunities as marijuana becomes legal and “position the city to attract industries that can take advantage of our unique assets.”
In a Trenton Times article, Perez said he favored the legalization of marijuana and said it can “reduce the unnecessary arrest, conviction and incarceration of individuals that have disproportionately fallen upon minority populations.” In the same article, Gusciora said legalization would remedy “one of the greatest, most entrenched social injustices of our time.”
So what’s the word?
Looking over several blogs that examine City of Trenton issues and budgets, there are several informed and thoughtful comments regarding the candidates.
On February 12 Trenton resident and broadcast journalism professional Kevin Moriarty posted on his blog site And Another Thing an entry regarding Perez’s 2014 mayoral campaign’s financial reporting.
Here he notes Perez still “has unfinished business” regarding his 2014 mayoral campaign’s financial reporting and technically error on reconciling $1,412.49.
“The amount is not huge, true,” notes Moriarty, “and as an unsuccessful candidate, the filing obligations for Mr. Perez are not as stringent as those for a sitting mayor. But still, Perez’s loose end here raises an eyebrow. However, that unreconciled balance is not the only eyebrow-raising problem with Paul Perez’s reports. Let’s look at a few:”
Moriarty then shows how the Perez campaign had violated NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission regulations by allowing unreported changes in its treasurer, provides incomplete information regarding donations, and used cash payments.
The blogger says he brings this up because, “Our last two mayoral elections were won by candidates who had serious problems with the way they ran their campaigns, as demonstrated by their error- and violation-filled ELEC reports. Despite this evidence being visible to voters well before each election, Trenton went ahead and voted them in anyway. We then found out, on both occasions, that these guys ran their Administrations just about as well as they ran their campaign finances.”
On March 27, Moriarty filed a post titled “Still Waiting for Paul Perez” that Perez and his staff and attorney had responded to the February 12 posting and that they would address the faulty ELEC reports.
However, 41 days after the posting, there was still no revision. Moriarty then reports that the ELEC shows no revised 2014 reporting and “Perez blamed his 2014 reporting on his staff during that campaign. He also ascribed his reporting problems from that race to the fact he’d run ‘a novice campaign.’ This explanation is a little hard to swallow, given that Mr. Perez presents himself as a seasoned and experienced manager.
Meanwhile Don Dodson, a well known Trenton blogger with a Harvard MBA, takes a positive look at Perez. “(Perez) and his team have written a book on economic development, linking issues with home ownership and rentals to the fundamental attractiveness of Trenton as an investment choice. They’ve created a treatise on good governance and took the time to research model governance that would be helpful. His web site deals with economic policy on how to fix abatements, some specific issues about downtown, our abandoned property policies and citizen engagement among other policy ideas. I was wrong when I said a couple of weeks ago that none of the candidates are addressing our decline in home ownership directly. Paul is.”
While saying the Gusciora had mentioned downtown and the need for a citizen line to report problems, he adds that he has “no obvious loyalties to Trenton’s political establishment.”
Gusciora, however, has gotten the backup of the greater area political establishment with Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes and other Mercer County Democrats who originally supported the unsuccessful mayoral campaign of Walker Worthy. Other endorsements come from the Sierra Club, Capital City Redevelopment Corporation Chairman and former Republican State Senator Peter Inverso, and the LGBTQ Victory Fund and Garden State Equity organizations.
Perez endorsers include Guatemalan Merchants’ Association, Political Action Committee of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey (LLA-PAC), National Dominican American Council, Laborers’ International Union of North America, and former mayoral candidate Darren “Freedom” Green.
The main endorsement, however, is the Trenton voters, who will vote on June 12, and the candidates were speaking to them during a May NJTV interview.
“We’re going to bring good, responsible management to the money of this city. We’re going to bring the proper distribution of resources to the people of the city,” said Perez.
“I’ve represented the capitol city for 22 years. I think I’m in the best position to use my level of government experience to work with the governor, work with the county executive to bring all people and neighborhoods together to make this city better,” said Gusciora.
Nevertheless, the people of Trenton will speak on June 12 — and start writing a new chapter of the city’s history.